Sometime in the 1970s, the United States began a love affair with incarceration that continues to this day. After holding nearly steady for decades, our prison population began to climb as criminal justice policy took a sharply punitive turn, with the massive criminalization of drug use, "three strikes" laws and other harsh sentencing practices. More people were going to prison, and staying there longer. By 2005, the prison population was six times what it had been in 1975.
One little-known side effect of this population explosion has been a sharp increase in the number of elderly people behind bars. According to the Justice Department, in 1980 the United States had about 9,500 prisoners age 55 and older; by 2008, the number had increased tenfold, to 94,800. That same year, the number of prisoners 50 and older was just shy of 200,000 -- about the size of the entire U.S. prison population in the early 1970s.
The average cost to incarcerate an inmate is about $24,000 per year. It costs about three times that amount to incarcerate someone 55 or older. Given that criminal offending tends to decline with age, does it make economic sense to lock people up for life? The so-called "get tough" crime control policies of the 1980s have done little to reduce crime, but have led to an explosion in prison growth and costs. Providing for geriatric inmates is very expensive and yields even less of a return in terms of crime control.